The Turning?

The Turning?

Given the scope of conservative ruin, how do progressives seize the day? Start by challenging entrenched interests and ideology, and support candidates and causes while curbing the interests of big money.


What comes next? The catastrophic conservatism of George W. Bush and the DeLay Congress is collapsing. Americans have turned against the signature Bush initiatives: the war in Iraq, privatization of Social Security, trickle-down economics, the Big Oil energy policy. The GOP coalition is splintering. The religious right’s extremism–Schiavo, stem cell research, attacks on science–alienates most Americans. The cynical posturing on immigration and gay marriage grows more transparent. DeLay is gone. Bush has moved from swagger to sorry.

Democrats are roused by the possibility of taking back the House and perhaps even the Senate this fall. But the stark failure of the right opens a far broader possibility, creating the space for a bold progressive vision and movement to challenge the grip that conservatives have had on our politics and imaginations over the past quarter-century. In this context, it’s worth taking a sober look at the possibilities and limits of the coming election.

The Debate We Will Have

With nearly two-thirds of the country now disapproving of the performance of Bush and the GOP Congress, Democrats are tempted to start scoping out their new offices. Nothing could be more pernicious. When Democrats believe they are sitting on a lead, they turn from cautious to catatonic.

In fact, while the conditions for a political tsunami this fall are gathering, Republicans may still be able to survive the storm. Congressional seats are like impregnable medieval castles, populated with loyal subjects and defended with all the hot oil ads and dedicated troops that money can buy. Challengers have neither the time nor the resources for a long siege. Republicans will flood any close race with big money in the final weeks. Even with voters looking for a change, taking out any of these barons is a heroic feat; on average, 94 percent of House incumbents win re-election. Moreover, Americans still tend to scorn Congress but like their legislator; they think Congress is corrupt but that their Representative is clean. Democrats need only fifteen seats to win a majority in the House, where the rules, and the seniority of liberals, would enable even a small majority to produce a dramatic change. But it will take an extraordinary mobilization to get it done.

Democrats may have difficulties navigating the storm as well. They have no consensus position on the fundamental issue driving opinion–the war in Iraq–and aren’t particularly compelling on how to fix the economy. Democrats rail at Bush’s failures in Iraq, but they are all over the map on what to do going forward. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has supported the old Marine Jack Murtha in calling for getting the troops out (“redeployment” is the euphemism du jour), while others–including pre-presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Evan Bayh and Mark Warner–argue that it is important to leave a stable government in place, although they are divided on how to achieve that. And some, like Joe Lieberman, act like they’re part of the presidential glee club.

On the economy, Democrats have an open-throated critique of Bush’s failures–the budget and trade deficits, the stagnant wages, the growing inequality and poverty–but no clear alternative growth agenda. They’ve made fiscal probity a priority but hesitate to argue for fair taxes. This tends to leave them tongue-tied about major public investment. So when Bush argues for tax cuts and growth, too often Democrats argue about deficits.

Despite this, Democrats are in much better shape than you’d know from the pundits prating about their lack of unity and absence of ideas. In reality, George Bush’s extremism has forged greater Democratic unity than ever. That unity was critical in routing Bush’s primary second-term domestic initiative–privatization of Social Security–and will help Democrats make the election a national referendum on conservative corruption and incompetence. (Newt Gingrich helpfully supplied the slogan: “Had Enough?”)

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate not only have drummed on the Republican “culture of corruption” but have forged relatively widespread agreement on a positive issue agenda that helps dramatize the costs of that corruption to voters. They’ve called for a concerted drive for energy independence, as opposed to the Administration’s Big Oil cronyism. They’d fix the prescription drug program–put it in Medicare and require Medicare to negotiate lower prices–as opposed to the Big Pharma giveaways DeLay forced through Congress. They would invest in education and cut student loan interest rates in half, as opposed to GOP cuts of billions from student aid. They’d raise the minimum wage, which Republicans, catering to the business lobby, have frozen since 1997. They would get serious about homeland security, in stark contrast to the cronyism revealed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And they would attack the incompetence and corruption in Iraq, where insider companies like Halliburton made off with billions in no-bid contracts, even while the Pentagon charges them with fraudulent billing.

Neither Democratic nor Republican incumbents have exactly been stalwarts when it comes to getting big money out of politics. But this agenda gives Democrats a populist theme, pitting the common good against the special interest, working people against corporate lobbies.

Thus far, the Republicans’ response has been as fractured as their popularity. Many legislators are scrambling to go local–highlighting their independence from Bush and their effectiveness in serving their constituents. But the White House and the RNC argue that their best hope is to make the election a fear-driven choice, not a referendum on conservative performance. As Karl Rove put it to the RNC, the President knows we’re at war, whereas Democrats want to “cut and run”; the President will do what is necessary to keep Americans safe, while Democrats worry about warrants and procedure, opposing the “terrorist surveillance program” and renewal of the Patriot Act; Republicans are for tax cuts and growth, while Democrats will raise taxes and sabotage growth; and Republicans defend traditional values–like marriage–while Democrats undermine them.

This replays tunes that were brutally effective in 2002 and 2004. But few voters may still be listening to the President on Iraq, and most Americans think Republicans are out of touch when they tout the supposedly good economy. Plus, Republican posturing on social issues is losing credibility even on the right.

The Debate We Need to Have

How do progressives use the moment to pose a far broader challenge to the right? Democrats suffer badly from the fact that no one has any clear sense of what they stand for. In response, progressives have begun to argue that Democrats need to embrace a big idea–not simply a parcel of issue proposals–to define their public philosophy.

In an elegant essay, Michael Tomasky, editor of The American Prospect, urges Democrats to return to their tradition of “civic republicanism,” of arguing for the common good, for a sense that we’re all in this together and that together we can build a more perfect union. In Being Right Is Not Enough, Paul Waldman of Media Matters details how this contrasts clearly with the right’s “we’re all on our own” hyper-individualism. In All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy, Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute lays out an economic argument along the same lines. All agree that a common-good politics is best expressed in universal rather than small-bore programs–Medicare for all, for example–that contrast clearly with the conservative vision, with its scorn for any collective enterprise beyond the military.

The scope of the challenges facing the country sets the stage for this politics. And the widespread understanding that conservatives in power have championed the interests of the few rather than the many provides a compelling backdrop. But what keeps Democrats from putting forth a clear governing philosophy–and laying out an agenda to give it substance? Tomasky suggests that the problem is grounded in the success of the movements of the 1960s, which shattered the hypocrisies and racism of cold war liberalism but left in their wake an interest-group pluralism focused on rights rather than common enterprise. With less venom, he echoes the arguments of the Democratic Leadership Council and Newt Gingrich that Democrats lost their way in the 1960s, as the antiwar, women’s and civil rights movements produced, to use Richard Nixon’s venomous formulation, a party of “acid, amnesty and abortion.” (Reagan added the “welfare queen” and the politics of racial division.)

Tomasky is silent about the failure of military Keynesianism to deal with stagflation in the 1970s, and the corporate offensive that declared open warfare on liberal economics, unions and consumer and environmental groups. Corporations built not only the ideological arsenal of the right but also the money wing of the Democratic Party. Democrats found that, as the majority in Congress, they could fill their campaign coffers with corporate contributions. Liberal Atari Democrats and conservative New Democrats learned to scorn unions as a special interest, and to champion much of the corporate agenda–balanced budgets, free trade, deregulation, privatization, capital-gains tax cuts, opposition to the minimum wage, even the short-term stock options that gave CEOs a multimillion-dollar personal incentive to cook the books. Democrats stopped speaking to the common good less because they were mugged by women’s or civil rights groups than because they found it literally paid to stop fighting for working people in the economy.

The misdiagnosis leads to the wrong prescriptions. Tomasky fantasizes about a Democratic presidential candidate announcing to the “single-issue groups arrayed around my party” that “I don’t seek your endorsement, won’t fill out your questionnaires” in order to convince Americans that he or she would put the “common interest over the particular interest.” This might be called the Democrats’ Sister Souljah temptation–after Clinton’s staged insult to Jesse Jackson in 1992: the calculated, if symbolic, straight-arming of your own base to demonstrate independence.

The problem with this “politics of inoculation,” as Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin call it in their essay “Politics of Definition,” is that it not only demoralizes the most passionate activists at the base of the party but also contributes to the sense that Democrats won’t even defend their own. And of course, pushing away the base has been generally used by Democrats to move to a more cautious corporate politics–as when President Clinton gained praise for his “courage” in standing with the Fortune 500, the bulk of editorialists and all of Wall Street to champion NAFTA against trade union opposition.

In fact, it is far less the supposed dominance of the movements in the Democratic Party than the influence of Wall Street and corporate money that impedes building a bold new governing strategy. It is not women, civil rights or union movements that lead Democrats to embrace a bipartisan corporate trade strategy serving multinationals but not the nation; or that cause Democrats to help pass top-end tax cuts, that make them vote to keep CEO stock options off the books or that make them wary about backing national healthcare. To revive a true politics of the public interest, Democrats will have to challenge the grip that corporate money and conservative economic ideology have on the party.

Similarly, on foreign policy, the bipartisan assumption that the United States should police the world comes, obviously, from the corporate establishment, not the peace movement. The current rage in center-right Democratic circles is to resuscitate Harry Truman, substitute bin Laden for Stalin and jihadism for communism, and summon America to a new global struggle–claiming for Democrats a muscular tradition of collective security, in contrast to Bush’s “conservative unilateralism.” Neocons like Peter Beinart, fresh from cheering the country into the Iraq debacle, join New Dems like Al From in urging Democrats to prove their resolve by purging the left–the “MoveOn, Michael Moore wing”–from the Democratic Party. Members of the DLC call on the United States to increase its military spending, expand its expeditionary forces and “put the economy on a wartime footing.” They pledge to “rally the American people” to sustain an “extended and robust” occupation in Iraq. And they urge the United States to intervene aggressively in the Middle East with a “sweeping program of economic, political and social reform.” Since the DLC also pledges to reduce the budget deficits at the same time, Americans will have to tighten their belts to support such a mission.

This posture is deeply flawed. It distorts the threat and gets the response wrong. The problems of the Muslim world are not caused by the United States and the West having intervened too little. We need a policy on Islamist terrorists that isolates them rather than inflates them: alliances, intelligence cooperation, joint efforts to delegitimize their fanaticism, aggressive policing to bring them to justice. We need a strategy for America in a world very different from that of the end of World War II, when the dollar was literally as good as gold. This, once more, will require challenging the grip of multinational corporations and banks and their ideological fixation on building a global market protected from national regulation. Only then will we be able to define a “common good” politics that can help make the global economy work for the many and not the few.

If we are to reclaim a bold progressive politics, then the fantasy candidate will be one willing to tell a gathering of investment bankers that he or she doesn’t need their money but would like their support to champion the public interest. This won’t soon be the consensus position of the Democratic Party. It will require the building of an independent progressive movement willing to challenge entrenched interests and ideology, and able to support candidates and causes while building efforts to curb the influence of big money in politics.

This effort has only just begun, but surprising progress is possible in 2006. Forceful populists like Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sherrod Brown of Ohio could help transform the debate if elected to the Senate. Audacious challenges–like that of Ned Lamont in taking on Joe Lieberman for the US Senate nomination in Connecticut–will help sober sitting Democrats about the need to represent their voters. New capacity–from the insurgent activism of and the brassy blogosphere to the AFL-CIO’s new community affiliate Working America’s reach into middle America–will provide a greater ability to define the future, not simply to decry it.

The MoveOn wing of the party isn’t about to be purged by the folks who helped propel us into Iraq. The democratic wing of the Democratic Party, in Paul Wellstone’s–and later Howard Dean’s–phrase, is expanding in influence and number. In response to Bush’s forceful but failed project, progressives across the country are developing a feisty, populist politics that just may drive Democrats toward a real politics of the common good.

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